In 1957, Sputnik was a threat, television was brand new and game shows were all the rage.
The most popular game show is Twenty-one, a quiz show where contestants put in a soundproof booth, grilled with multi-part questions, with no multiple choice and no knowledge of their competitor’s score. It makes Who Wants to be Millionaire look like patty-cake.
For the past few weeks, Herb Stempel (John Turturro), a dorky looking Jewish man from Queens, has been winning Twenty-One. When the show’s producers find Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) a clean cut college professor looking to play on another game show, Tic Tac Toe, they redirect him to play on Twenty-One. They want him to overthrow Herb since his ratings have leveled out. Besides, Charles is much easier on the eyes and can make intelligence look cool. Dan Enright (David Paymer) is sure that Charles will be a hit in homes across America, but first they have to make sure Herb will fall.
So they tell Herb how he has to answer one question: What film won Best Picture in 1955? They want Herb to answer On the Waterfront and take a dive. Why did they have to pick that question? Herb knows the correct answer is Marty, he loved the movie so much he saw it three times. For Herb, this isn’t just a moral dilemma, but he’s prided himself on being a know-it-all, how can he take a dive on such an easy and close to the heart question? Herb is told by Dan Enright that he will be on other shows if he takes the dive, and Herb believes him.
Those moments in the booth, under the hot lights, where all of America is waiting for Herb to answer, “Marty” are so tense. Everyone knows the answer, as they watch they say it, as if trying to help him out. He sweats, he knows the right answer but he can have a career in television with the wrong answer. As he chokes out, “On the Waterfront,” everyone is so disappointed.
But Herb is quickly forgotten, now they have shining Charlie to worship and adore. He even gets his face on the cover of Time magazine. All he has to do is act intelligent and say the answers NBC gives him. The setup seems too easy, until Herb lets the secrets behind the show loose and investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) goes snooping around for the truth.
John Turturro plays Herb, at first I couldn’t remember where I had seen that face before, upon a quick IMDB search I couldn’t believe this was the same person who played Pete in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Here Turturro pours so much eccentric energy into Herb, he’s wonderfully odd and passionate, but those qualities don’t always look good when trying to prove a big television company for fixing their game.
The moral issues faced by the characters, mainly Herb and Charles, are the central issue of the story. Each week, they go on television with the answers memorized and the outcome all ready known. When Charlie is visiting with his family, his father doesn’t exactly call half an hour of a quiz show a hard day’s work, but at the same time, he feels pride in his son. Charlie is a good man just wrapped up in the whole quiz show plot. When things finally get exposed, he hopes he can just lay low and avoid the shame of cheating and deceiving the whole nation.
We’ve seen Robert Redford’s work before in Ordinary People. His skills only sharpened into the ’90s. He makes quiz show feel like part big cooperate corruption, part moral drama and part investigation crime film. The story, array of characters and detailed image of 1957 America he creates is more intelligent than any quiz show.
Before you write Quiz Show and Slumdog Millionaire into the same category, know that these films are wildly different. The only real similarity between them is a game show background. I cannot recommend one or the other because they are so opposite and both have great ideas to offer. I would recommend Quiz Show to anyone who enjoys a good conspiracy, moral drama or 1950’s setting. Of course, if you enjoy John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes or Rob Marrow this is a must see.
“Sixty-four thousand dollars for a question, I hope they are asking you the meaning of life.”